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4 Strategies to Overcome the Enrollment Cliff

The impact of the enrollment cliff in higher ed is one that has been discussed ad nauseum as an inevitable challenge for institutions across the country. With a steep dip in childbirths during the 2008 recession, the result is that institutions will compete with a shrinking number of students by 2025.

But what often doesn’t get talked about is the fact that these college students will be profoundly different from the ones born prior to 2008. These students were not only born in a recession, but also had their middle school years directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For most students, these years are pivotal to their development as they transition to their early teenage years.

If institutions are to attract this subset of Generation Z, they must be responsive to the environments in which their prospective students were raised. Here are some of the major opportunities for attracting students born between 2008 and 2010.

Help students compete for post-college

Students born between 2008 and 2010 have likely heard stories from their parents about how it was nearly impossible to find a job when they were born. Perhaps their parents went back to school to switch careers or worked a retail job to try to make ends meet. Anyone who became a recent parent during these times faced an immense amount of stress trying to provide for their children.

New parents likely questioned the value of their college education after they found that the very thing they majored in hasn’t resulted in sustainable employment. And history repeated itself in 2020 as many of those same parents were laid off again, just as they had a chance to recover from the last recession. The bitterness as it relates to higher ed has likely been passed down to their own children, who are also likely to be skeptical about the benefits of attending an institution.

Moving forward, prospective students want to know that their higher education experience will lead to a stable career that can help them pay the bills. This generation of students will want to ensure that they can reach the same level of prosperity their grandparents talked about – the ability to afford an education, own a home, and raise a family. Students will have little tolerance for getting into debt without knowing the ROI of a college education.

This is where student success offices and professors must step in. Provide students with the ability to get credentialed in their field where it matters, leverage projects for real-world experience and teach students in areas where they’ll benefit from a practical standpoint rather than a theoretical one. Prospective students want their educational experience to help them better compete in the job market, and it’s up to institutions to help them get there.

Make large lecture halls optional to attend in-person

Like it or not, there is some aspect of remote learning that is here to stay. While in-person learning has plenty of value, there’s little reason for 500-person lecture classes to exist in one lecture hall ever again. Most students aren’t engaged in large lecture halls and skipping them has been a practice for decades.

Instead of forcing students to listen to lectures in-person at a designated time, allow them to stream lectures live or on-demand so students can take classes when they’re most attentive. Students used to dream about structuring their class schedule with mornings free or taking Mondays and Fridays off so they can take four-day weekends.

Now they can have whatever schedule they want, and there’s no reason why students should be prevented from this freedom. It’s not only beneficial for students, but also takes out the geographic limitations of the traditional classroom. This will ultimately open up the institution to a greater pool of students across the country and even internationally.

Spend more time helping students tailor their experience

Over the next few years, institutions will fully embrace the efficiencies that chatbots have to offer. This will free up administrative overhead that institutions have never experienced.

The result of this transformation is that institutions will now need to find ways to repurpose employees in a manner that is mutually beneficial to the school and students alike. Where most forward-thinking administrators will end up is that students can now receive more personalized one-on-one attention.

Staff will soon be able to function much like high school guidance counselors and have office hours for students to make appointments and get help optimizing their student experience. The students who enter by 2025 will be very goal-oriented. There will be a mix of knowledge workers, entrepreneurs, artists, travelers and much more wanting a college experience that tailors to their identity beyond just selecting a major. It will also look different for students who are first-generation, international or come from a lower-income background.

Yet they will all want institutions to provide the skills necessary for when they graduate. In order to accomplish this, institutions will need staff to provide enough personalized attention to ensure students flourish once they leave campus.

Explore opportunities to integrate Web3 with higher education

By the time students make their way onto campus, the average student will have some experience with the Web3 world, either through cryptocurrency, NFTs, DAOs or the metaverse. If any of these terms feel like they’re out of a sci-fi movie, then you are already behind the eight-ball as it relates to meeting student needs.

Your institution learned how to engage with current and prospective students on social media by 2010. It will now need to make a similar shift to Web3 by 2030. There are a number of benefits to helping students realize the potential of Web3.

The most significant one is that students can leverage cryptocurrency and NFT projects to offset the cost of their tuition. Rather than relying on financial aid packages or hefty student loans, your students will have the ability to create projects that fund their higher ed tuition. This can ultimately improve the cash flow at your institution while keeping students debt-free.

Getting to this point requires substantial research and listening to your students’ needs. Financial aid officers must learn to help students figure out strategies for independently funding their own education and professors should embrace the metaverse to help students add a wide range of credentials to improve their job prospectus. Web3 provides infinite levels of possibility, but without a campus-wide imperative to explore this space immediately, institutions will miss opportunities with an increasing number of students.

Yes, institutions must start looking seriously at the incoming enrollment cliff. But looking at this event solely as a numbers comparison misses the entire point.

Rather than treating the enrollment cliff as a competition to attract more students from a smaller pool, administrators should instead look at this as a shift in the type of students joining an institution. These students are going to be more skeptical, forcing higher ed to create more value in more creative ways for incoming classes.

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